By Lisa Morgan
There are literally thousands of stories in print about Poison and their iconic front man, Bret Michaels, written by far more talented and seasoned writers than I. What I’m trying to explain is – there might have been an involuntary moment where I may have said in my outside voice, “Oh my gosh, Bret Michaels in on my phone!” In spite of my lack of decorum, the interview turned into a conversation that felt more like I was talking to a really cool neighbor who I would always want to stop and talk to, even it made me late for work. With a tremendous respect for the artist, and a responsibility to you, the reader, I will do my best to eloquently present Bret Michaels to you as he presented himself to me – an incredibly dauntless, courageous individual with a contagious passion, whose fearless optimism is quite mind bending. This self-proclaimed “Drealist” (his term for a dreamer who is also a realist) is fueled by equal parts true love and tenacious determination. The kid from Philly has not only habitually turned his own dreams into reality, he makes it a practice of helping others do the same. If there is an opportunity within arm’s reach to inspire or encourage, through music or otherwise, Michaels will step up to the plate.
Michaels’ super powers are humility and gratitude, and they soaked through everything he shared openly about the reality of staring death in the face, dealing daily with a chronic, life threatening illness, and what has fueled him through the highs and lows of his music career. Rest assured, Stagecoach Festival goers, Bret Michaels and crew know how to get down with good country people, and the experience he has planned for you will, without a doubt, be imbedded in your memory hall of fame.
Michaels was a force of nature when it came to helping drive the band, Poison, to success. Capitol Records A&R man, Stan Foreman, local to the desert, confirmed this: “We always knew that when Bret was there, everything would get done. These guys lived the rock star life to the fullest. It could get crazy. But When Bret was there, we knew it was all going to be ok.”
I asked Michaels about the early days of Poison, pushing through setbacks, band members dropping out, the avalanche of early rejection, and their ultimate success. When I let him know that we would likely have a lot of young musicians reading this, the floodgates of his boots-on-the-ground wisdom opened.
CVW: “How accurate are the stories of your early start, and pushing the band to produce the video that ultimately led to a deal with Capitol?”
Michaels: “It’s true – we loaded up this beat up old ambulance van in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and drove out to Los Angeles, California. We were the first DIY/Independent band. We were our own label, but no one would sign us. No one. We had songs like, “I won’t Forget You,” “Talk Dirty,” “Every Rose,” and nobody thought they were hits. The one thing I say to all artists is, ‘You have got to bet on yourself.’ I am a self-proclaimed ‘Drealist,’ a dreamer and a realist, and that’s what you have to be. You have got to take care of your business in order to live out your passion. I can’t explain it enough. You have to have both. Managers and agents are there to help you live out YOUR dream, so stick to your dream, and stick to your guns. You want to stay rockin’ and relevant and real, but you’ve still got to have that home base. And when you know it’s not right in your gut – those decisions are tough, they’re never easy, ‘No’ is a powerful word.”
“We scrounged up enough money from family and everybody we knew to produce our first video. “Cry Tough” ended up doing ok for an independent record, so Capitol came on board with distribution. We did “Talk Dirty to Me” for next to nothing; When we went in to make the video, I told the guys, ‘Let’s just make it a party.’ We gave 1000%. It was a combination of luck and hard work. It’s not just luck, because you only get lucky once or twice. The hard work makes you luckier. And that’s what we did – we took our music to the street.”
CVW: “The industry has changed drastically since the 80s. How do you feel about the changes brought on by the digital age of music?”
Michaels: “I’m one of the few guys of my genre who says this, but I love the digital age, because the gate keepers have gone away. What I mean is that you don’t have to impress 60 people to get your song out; you go on the internet and your song is out. However, I say this over and over – with becoming easily exposed, comes being easily disposed. People can have a sensational viral hit, and two weeks later no one cares. You still have to take your music to the streets and to the people and find ways to make your passion monetize. Poison and myself have learned to truly love what we do. We have been punched in the face so many times; we have learned how to pick ourselves back up, bet on ourselves, and build our house from the ground up. We’d build up three levels, and then get knocked back down one, but we knew exactly where to fix it and build it back up. That’s truly been my strong suit…when things got tough, I got way tougher. They could cut me down, but I wasn’t a give-up person. I was like, ‘Ok, I can still be cool and humble and kind, but I’m an ass kicker.’ I love to go out there and kick ass. When you see the party we throw at Stagecoach, you’ll see it. I pick out the details of the music to play as the people are walking in or coming to the stage, our crew goes out handing out guitar picks to the crowd, I bring veterans first responders and teachers during “Something to Believe In.” We’ve always done that, since the beginning of my career.”
“Here it is, I am 100,000% still a kid from Philly. I’m still the guy. My passion at being able to do this is still at the same level as the moment I started dreaming about doing it. It has never left me. If I have ever thanked God for something, it’s for not allowing that passion to slip away. You will never see me phone it, mail it or email it in. That isn’t just with music – that’s with my kids, my family, if I’m doing reality TV. Here’s my life: I wake up in the morning and I check my blood sugar. I’m diabetic. I take 5 shots a day, so insulin is the next thing. Then I eat just a little and I’m out on my ranch. I’ve got a full on motorcross course, I’ve got ATVs, mountain bikes, so I get into that instantly. Ever since I was kid, I always liked seeing my shoes in the dirt. I like being outside doing stuff. Country music talks about that, but I’ve lived it. Dirt biking, camping, all of that.”
CVW: “You’ve stared death in the face, and hold it at bay daily. How does that affect you that maybe people don’t understand on the surface?”
Michaels: “Here’s the choice I’ve had: I can live in self-pity or I can suck it up and go out there and kick ass. I made being diabetic a part of my life. It’s a very complicated disease, especially when you’re insulin dependent. If you were to look at my fingers – you can see that I check my blood sugar 10 times a day. Once you mentally give up, physically, it’s a pretty rapid decline. If I was given a chance, I always got right back into the fight.”
CVW: “What inspires your writing most?”
Michaels: “It’s ironic, but the songs that are the easiest to write, are the ones that come from the most tragic moments in life. When my best friend died, I wrote, “Something to Believe In.” When my heart was broken, I wrote, “Every Rose.” When I missed my family, I wrote, “I Won’t Forget You.” “Unbroken,” was written when my youngest daughter went through a horrific time in her young life. These songs come to you with a passion. But the hardest songs to write are the party songs, like “Nothing But a Good Time,” or “Unskinny Bop.” When you’re having a good time with your friends, you don’t want to sit down and write about it. When you’re partying with your friends, you don’t write to anyone on your phone until later when a bummer moment happens. For me the heartbreak songs are easier for me because I have an exact emotion.”
CVW: “What can fans at a country music festival expect from a rock icon?”
Michaels: “I want the fans at Stagecoach to understand – I’ve done a lot of big country festivals. Last year I headlined “Rock on the River,” came back and did “Country on the River.” Country music is a big part of what I am and what I do for real. I went to Nashville in the early 90s and had a ranch down there and loved it… not just the music, but the people. Country music is a lifestyle and attitude that’s a lot like rock music. I am what I call a “Crocker.” Classic Rock and Country, but the attitude and lifestyle is truly who I am. If you were to be around me on the ranch or the house in LA, you’d see that. I’m a true country fan and I’m honored to be part of this festival. I’m going to be out there making a day of it having a great time.”
CVW: “What is the difference you’ve experienced between Los Angeles and Nashville music scenes?”
Michaels: “I hope you don’t mind me bragging on my kids a bit. My oldest daughter is going to be in the new Sports Illustrated magazine; she is a truly humble soul, and goes to a university in Nashville for music and journalism. My youngest who wrote unbroken with me, goes to a music school in Los Angeles.”
“In Nashville, there is such a vibrant, condensed and welcoming music scene. When you get to LA or even the valley, there’s a vibrant music scene, but it’s more scattered. That’s not a criticism… there’s just not one row of music. When you go down to Nashville and go to Music Row or Broadway, you can feel it organically. Music scenes like in Arizona, the Coachella Valley, and LA, are just not as condensed – it’s just more spread out. When you’re around a condensed scene like that, it makes you feel like you can be an artist. Half of why artists fail, is because they give up; they feel beat down. They feel like, ‘I don’t have a scene. I have no where to be encouraged and inspired.’ In Nashville, and please don’t misunderstand me, it is a tough game to break into, but they are very welcoming and encouraging. But it’s up to you to not give up. You just have to stay in the game. There are never complete failures, there are just lesser successes, but you have to stay in it. Complete failure is when you quit. I’ve been at the height of it – everything going our way and then all of a sudden, it’s a ‘what have you done lately’ question. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve just sold 8 or 9 million records, thinking that’s pretty good, but that’s not how it works. If this is what you love to do, you’ve got to find a way to not only enjoy it, but stay relevant.”
CVW: “Seems like you’ve done everything. What’s left?”
Michaels: “On a professional level – there are some things in the works. I have some Irish superstitions, so I don’t want to jinx it, so I’ll be careful how I word this. In the next two weeks, I have a project coming out called, “Videos and Stories.” It’s a humble approach of what went on behind the scenes. It will be followed up with a series of books called, “Pictures and Stories,” a series of books that will bring you to your knees laughing. It will have you laughing at me and with me – some of my clothing choices in the past are all presented with a self-deprecating sense of humor. You’ll also cry with me in it. One of the first books in the series is called, “Victim to Victory.”
“I’ll also be on a new Guitar Hero game. If all goes well, and usually they don’t, (he laughs) it will be out by Christmas 2020.”
CVW: “You’ve toured the world, written, directed and starred in your own movie, had your own reality TV shows, been “hired” by Donald Trump, written the ultimate ’80s anthem about heartbreak, a plethora of Platinum and multi-platinum hits and records, ad infinitum – what experience would you list as your favorite?”
Michaels: “Of all the experiences I’ve had, it comes down to one thing: In my professional life (and by the way, as an artist, your professional and personal life become one), my favorite moment is walking on that stage and playing. Don’t get me wrong, my life is about creating and making it a reality. I love everything I do. But it’s the minute the first notes come out and the fans get going.”
“But my most defining moment – I’ll never forget this… the greatest rock star moment and the most humbling moment all happened within the same couple of hours. It was our first record. We’re blowing up. So all of sudden here’s Paul Stanley from KISS, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, and we’re all at Texas Stadium. Poison’s on tour and it’s sold out. It’s all documented on the Poison, “I Won’t Forget You” video. You see us up there, I’m nervous, but I’m having the time of my life. Only three months before that, we were playing the smallest clubs in the world (I convinced Poison to play in the honkytonks along with the rock clubs – it’s always been a love of mine). 83,000 people going insane. I go back stage and party…rock star moment…I want to make sure to make this clear; by ‘rock star moment,’ I don’t mean arrogant, never. I’ve always believed in treating fans great. I’m back there partying with the fans – I’m talking the out of control fun. Then we get on our tour bus and travel to Carlson’s Corner to fuel up, and there isn’t two people in this truck stop who give a damn about our band. They walked by us like we were ghosts. People were just walking by, just doing their thing, and I realized right then and there, all fame is fleeting. Do what you love to do and do it because you truly love doing it. God could not have hit me in the head better than that. It immediately defined my life; there were going to be roses and thorns, but if I love doing this…it’s all about the music… because everything else is going to go up and down and sideways.”
Catch Bret Michaels’ Stagecoach Festival performance Friday, April 26, 7:40 pm-8:40 pm on the Palomino Stage, and be prepared for some inspirational surprises.